How Big Is The Red Chinese Army

As the world’s most populous country, China is known for its massive population. But what may surprise some people is that this population also includes an equally as massive military — an army that makes China one of the strongest military forces in the world. In this article we’ll explore the impressive size and strength of the Chinese military, and detail some of the most important facts about the country’s powerful armed forces.

The official name of the military in the People’s Republic of China is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Chinese government says that its standing army numbers a little over 2 million people, distributed between ground forces, navy, air force, and the Strategic Support Force. This figure is impressive on its own considering the US military has around 1.3 million active personnel.

This figure, however, doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of personnel in the People’s Armed Police (PAP). It’s estimated that there are an additional 1.5 million personnel in the PAP — including the China Coast Guard — giving the People’s Republic an effective military strength greater than the United States. This is especially true when China’s tactical nuclear weapons and its 3,000 nuclear warheads are included in the calculation.

Despite its impressive size, the Chinese army still faces some shortcomings. According to defense analyst Naubahar Sharif, “When it comes to deployment overseas, the PLA is limited by its largely inexperienced combat personnel and its limited airlift capacity.” Chinese forces lack the ability to sustain a long-term deployment overseas, while US forces have the ability to move billions of dollars’ worth of personnel and equipment across the world on short notice.

China’s impressive size also belies its limited sophistication. Its ground forces are mainly equipped with outdated vehicles and equipment, such as T-55 and T-64 tanks. While China has made major investments in air power, its air force is still primarily composed of Chinese versions of 1960s Russian designs.

Nevertheless, the Red Chinese Army’s size and capabilities should not be underestimated. The PLA has recently invested in modern equipment, such as advanced fighter jets and drones and submarines that can carry nuclear weapons or other payloads. China also has the world’s second-largest navy, with over 300 vessels and submarines — and more are being added each year. It has close to 200 strategic missiles, and the country is said to have technology that can allow them to hit targets 10,000 miles away.

The Chinese government has also invested heavily in modernizing its military personnel and training. Its new focus on cyberwarfare has alarmed some international experts — as the PLA is seen to be one of the most technologically capable forces in the world in this field. At the same time, the PLA has implemented a recruitment program to attract high quality and experienced personnel, allowing the army to operate more smoothly and professionally.

Reversal of Military Spending Trends

The modernization of the Chinese military has been made possible by a dramatic increase in military spending in recent years. China has one of the world’s highest defense budgets, at nearly $250 billion in 2019 — more than double that of Britain and Germany combined. And while most countries around the world are cutting back on military spending due to the global pandemic, China has seen a powerful surge in military spending in 2020.

This reversal of spending trends has been especially noticeable in China’s purchase of advanced military technology. In 2019, China imported a record $18.3 billion worth of weapons, more than any other country in the world. Among its top purchases were fighter jets, tanks and missiles. And the investments continue. In 2020, the Chinese government approved a $161 billion budget for defense and national security.

Increased Regional Influence

The growing power of the Chinese army has been accompanied by an expansion of its influence in the region. In the past decade, China has invested in infrastructure, economic and military activities in Myanmar, Pakistan and other nations in the region. This expansion has put increased pressure on India, which is often seen as the main rival of China in Asia.

The most notable example of China’s growing influence in the region has been its involvement in what is known as the Indo-Pacific region. This includes the South China Sea, where China has been building artificial islands and deploying military assets. This has been a source of tension between China and the US and its allies — as the US has vowed to protect the freedom of navigation in the region.

China’s expanding military presence has also been a source of alarm to regional powers like Japan and Taiwan. Japan is particularly concerned about China’s growing naval power, as it claims the Senkaku Islands, a group of tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that have been a source of tension for decades.

Stepping Up Defense Capabilities

In response to China’s growing influence and military capabilities, many nations in the region have stepped up their defense spending as well. Japan’s defense budget, for example, has increased from 4.9 trillion yen ($46 billion) in 2019 to 5.3 trillion yen ($48 billion) in 2020, the largest budget since World War II.

The US has also ramped up its military presence in the region in recent years, with the deployment of new warships, fighters, missile defense systems and other assets. The US Navy also established a new task force to protect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

At the same time, the US and its allies have sought to increase their intelligence gathering capabilities in the region. The US has launched a fleet of reconnaissance drones, while Japan has announced plans to purchase sophisticated anti-submarine warfare technology. Australia and India have also invested in military and surveillance technology to counter China’s growing presence in the region.

China’s Nuclear Arsenal

China also boasts one of the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenals, with an estimated 300 nuclear warheads. Nevertheless, China is still far behind the other nuclear-capable nations in terms of per-capita nuclear strength. The total number of nuclear weapons held by China is much lower than those of the United States, Russia or the United Kingdom.

China’s nuclear program is based on the Three Pillars, which are – nuclear triad, including sea, land and air-launched delivery systems, designed to protect their second-strike capability; active defense, which focuses on deterrence and dissuasion; and minimum nuclear deterrence – which is aimed at deterring direct attack. China also has a no-first-use policy and is a participant of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which helps boost security in the region.

Recently, China has begun to embrace the concept of “strategic stability,” which essentially means that both China and its opponents should maintain a delicate balance of power where neither side has an overwhelming advantage.

Countering China’s Military Strength

As China’s military strength continues to grow, many of its neighbors in the region — and the United States — have become increasingly concerned. The US has been working with its regional allies to counter China’s power, while at the same time engaging in strategic dialogues with Chinese officials and encouraging greater transparency in Chinese military operations.

Given the impressive size and sophistication of the Chinese military, it’s unlikely that any country in the region could quickly match or counter Beijing’s power. At the same time, China is also likely to be wary of rising tensions and be mindful of the risks of an arms race.

More than anything, the international community hopes for a peaceful resolution to the disputes in the Indo-Pacific region. The presence of a large, powerful and sophisticated military on both sides of the conflict, however, makes that outcome increasingly unlikely.

Letha Wimmer is a military expert with more than a decade of direct experience in the U.S. Army and National Guard. She specializes in researching and writing about the world's armies and their capabilities, equipment, capabilities, strategies, organizations, and operations. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aviation from Middle Tennessee State University as well as an Aerial Firefighting Certificate and numerous other advanced aviation certifications. She also enjoys traveling to distant lands to gain firsthand knowledge about their military forces and has written extensively for various websites on the subject.

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